Uber Vs Lyft: Competing For Customers Takes More Than Size and Arrogance.   1 comment

On The Value of Being Valued

July 25, 2015

Most of us are familiar with the word “uber” (with or without an umlaut.)  It may only have been wishful thinking to assume that Uber selected the company name as innocently as anyone might imagine. “Uber”. Cute. Playful. Says a lot or means nothing. Having read the fall 2014 BuzzFeed story about the posturing of Uber executives, my thoughts evolved from a benign warm and fuzzy reaction t the name (and, by extension, the company), and gravitated to images more closely associated with black & white movies from post-WW II Hollywood. I started seeing it less as a group of cheerful, folksy, responsible drivers operating vehicles in a point-to-point transport service, and instead envisioned a company bent on accumulating information and utilizing it much like the NSA. I’m no fan of Edward Snowden, but I momentarily longed-for a Snowden-like individual within Uber (the company) who would take a thumb-drive loaded with über-classified Uber documents and bare the company’s secrets to the world.

The story in BuzzFeed (and carried widely,) was less focused on a rising company, and more on a darker internal culture that might be developing within this burgeoning transportation mega-corporation. Was Uber flexing its tech-savviness into shaping its press through intimidation? Unhappy with an article written by Pando’s Sarah Lacy, Uber’s Senior Vice President of Business, Emil Michael, went public with his displeasure, as recounted by BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith:

Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

Here we go. A pissed-off executive threatening the media. It’s an old story with a 21st-Century spin. You don’t like the press? Buy a media company. You’re unhappy with a story? Attack the journalist(s). While I won’t get between the executive (Mr. Michael) and the journalist (Ms. Lacy), I’m constantly surprised by corporate executives who, unhappy with a story about them or their business, appear more interested in polishing a turd than making certain the company is being a responsible corporate citizen.

I recall a conversation in the early 1980s which seems relevant. A very senior executive at a (then) major record label in the American music industry requested that his LP manufacturer (and distributor) send him samples of some recent releases. When the box arrived, it was obvious that these records had been sold and returned, or mishandled at the record pressing plant, or dropped, opened, resealed. The point is, they were anything but freshly-pressed, factory-sealed, pristine examples of the vinyl albums. The label executive mentioned the poor condition of the LPs during a subsequent conversation with the president of the larger corporation. His response was “you should have called me. They know how to handle my requests.” He didn’t care that the LPs, the product he was manufacturing and distributing, arrived in poor shape; after all, his LPs always arrived in perfect condition. The bottom line thirty years ago? Any daily shipments were subject to the importance of the person making the request. Fast forward to 2014 and Uber. Had Mr. Michael taken the time to investigate the unflattering story by journalist Sarah Lacy, he might have learned something about his company, his product, himself, and how to continue to shape the company into one which the employees, stockholders, drivers, everyone, would be proud to work for, invest in, become a part of, and support. He might have taken a different approach to Uber’s developing company culture.

People inside Uber were delighted that they could track passengers, follow their every Uber move, and potentially use the collected data as some form of marketing edge, or perhaps for retribution. When Uber launches their service in a new city they apparently throw a party for the local power geeks. At this “launch event” attendees get a look at what Uber calls God View. (No arrogance there….) According to Forbes Magazine writer Kashmir Hill, “Uber’s “God View,” which lets them see all of the Ubers in a city and the silhouettes of waiting Uber users who have flagged cars. When it’s anonymous, it’s a cool trick. But Julia Allison, an attendee at a launch party in Chicago in September 2011, says Uber treated guests to Creepy Stalker View, showing them the whereabouts and movements of 30 Uber users in New York in real time. She recognized half of the people listed and texted one of them, entrepreneur Peter Sims, revealing that she knew his current whereabouts. He was pissed when he found out, eventually quitting the service because he felt like he could no longer trust it.”

“Creepy Stalker View” remains an issue. As recently as June 22, 2015, Uber was once again being called out for its penchant to invade everyone’s privacy: “The Electronic Privacy Information Center wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Uber’s new privacy policy, which gives the company the right to track users even if they’re not currently using the Uber app.” Julia Allison was right: Creepy.

Until recently I had not yet tried Uber or any of these new-tech taxis, but already my thoughts were to find an Uber alternative. A few weeks ago I was in San Francisco visiting our daughter. We were going to take a car from the west end of the city to the Embarcadero (on the Bay), and my daughter had both the Uber App and the Lyft App on her iPhone. Having had a conversation about Uber, she went with Lyft. Our ride was the experience you’d hope for. Simple, easy, on time, pleasant drivers. The only thing missing was Uber and Mr. Michael. Thank goodness.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen

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One response to “Uber Vs Lyft: Competing For Customers Takes More Than Size and Arrogance.

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  1. Pingback: Uber: Ignorance of the ADA Presents Another Example of a Poorly Run Company | Jazzdavid

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